A lot went wrong for quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Ravens on Sunday. Against one of the NFL’s worst defenses, they finished with fewer passing yards per attempt, fewer yards per carry and fewer points than Pittsburgh had allowed, on average, over its first 11 games. It was, coach John Harbaugh said Monday, a “tough loss.”
“But that’s the nature of it right now in the National Football League,” he said. “We’ll go to work. I think you win, or you learn. You lose, or you learn, too. So, we have to find a way to learn through everything. … It’s a journey through the season. You have to find a way to deal with the adversity, deal with the good things, make the adjustments schematically that you need to make, keep improving, technique-wise. All of those things go into it. Take a long view, but focus on the next week, and that’s what we’ll be doing.”
As the Ravens prepare for Sunday’s rematch with the Browns in Cleveland, they’ll first have to reckon with their offensive failures in Pittsburgh: the sacks, the red-zone interception, the failed 2-point conversion. Coordinator Greg Roman and his offense will need answers by the time they head to Cleveland. The Browns limited the Ravens to just 3.9 yards per play in Week 12, a season low for the Ravens, and they should be even better prepared after a bye week.
Jackson was sacked a career-high seven times Sunday. He’s been sacked 37 times this season, another career high and more than any other NFL quarterback entering Week 14. Only the Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks have worse adjusted sack rates than the Ravens, according to Football Outsiders, which accounts for down, distance and opponent.
The blame game, in this case, isn’t easy to play; pass protection is a 12-man enterprise. It requires a coach to make the right call, the quarterback to get the ball out on time, the blockers to keep him upright and the receivers to get open. Every Ravens group has its shortcomings, just as every Ravens player had his struggles Sunday.
But the main culprit in Pittsburgh appeared to be Jackson. According to a review of the Steelers’ sacks, he had at least one receiver open when he last set his feet to throw on most, if not all, of his doomed drop-backs. It’s impossible in some cases to tell where Jackson was in his progression or whether certain receivers in his line of sight were obscured. But time and again, he had opportunities to get rid of the ball, only to tuck it away and scramble into trouble.
Pittsburgh was aggressive Sunday, but not overly so; none of the Steelers’ seven sacks came on “Cover 0″ coverages, which put defenses in blitz-heavy, man-to-man looks with no safety help. Jackson faced five pass rushers on five of his takedowns and just four on the other two. The Ravens’ problems were elsewhere. Here’s where they came up short:
- First-and-10, ball at the Steelers’ 14 (first quarter): Fullback Patrick Ricard, after releasing into the flat, was 3 yards downfield and 5 yards away from the nearest defender. But Jackson instead bounced outside, where defensive end Chris Wormley dragged him down.
- Second-and-5, Ravens’ 18 (first quarter): Wide receiver James Proche II stopped short of the sticks and presented an easy target over the middle. With a cornerback blitz coming from the same side, Jackson instead climbed the pocket and nearly escaped, only to be tripped up by outside linebacker T.J. Watt.
- First-and-10, Ravens’ 49 (second quarter): Jackson had a half-field read, with just two receivers downfield, and both were open: Wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown was 5 yards away from the closest defender when he stopped on a deep comeback route, and tight end Mark Andrews was peeling away from his man for a comfortable throwing window. But Jackson waited. Then Ricard flashed into view over the middle. Jackson waited some more. Finally, Wormley sacked him.
- Third-and-9, midfield (second quarter): Two plays after Wormley’s second sack, the Steelers blitzed cornerback Tre Norwood. Wide receiver Devin Duvernay adjusted his route, raised his hand to get Jackson’s attention, then watched as Jackson double-clutched and tried to escape. He nearly did, but he couldn’t escape defensive end Cameron Heyward, the last line of defense at the line of scrimmage.
- Second-and-8, Ravens’ 45 (third quarter): Jackson had to scramble to his right after a strong initial pass rush, negating the half of the field where the Ravens had three of their four downfield receivers running. But Brown was wide open past the first-down marker, and despite having turned around, and despite being nearly parallel with Jackson, his quarterback never seemed to see him. Before long, Wormley and Watt chased Jackson down.
- Second-and-10, Ravens’ 25 (fourth quarter): Jackson didn’t have much open downfield, but wide receiver Sammy Watkins had found a soft spot in zone coverage past the first-down marker. Running back Devonta Freeman was available for a check-down over the middle. So was Duvernay, who had a little daylight in the flat. As soon as Jackson tried to buy himself some extra time, however, Watt was on him, having shed right tackle Tyre Phillips easily.
- Second-and-10, Ravens’ 40 (fourth quarter): The Ravens ran four vertical routes, leaving Jackson without a quick-hitter option. But rookie wide receiver Rashod Bateman easily got a step on cornerback Cam Sutton, and Andrews was running with inside linebacker Devin Bush, who had his head turned away from the play. Rather than take a chance down the sideline to Bateman or over the middle to Andrews, Jackson moved up in the pocket, slipped one sack attempt, then had Watt come over and punch the ball loose. Fortunately for the Ravens, it skipped all the way over to the sideline.
After the game, Harbaugh said Ravens coaches could do more to help Jackson get the ball out quickly. But Harbaugh also acknowledged that “the ball was being held, trying to push the ball downfield a little bit at times.”
“We gave them enough time to get to him, for sure,” Harbaugh added. “There were plenty of times where he ran out of there, too, and made some huge plays, extending plays. … We talk about that in our press conferences quite a bit. So that’s kind of — Lamar’s a unique guy that way. Seven sacks are too many.”
Said Jackson: “We’ve just got to get in the lab and find ways to make things happen and keep our jobs going and try not to have sacks. Try to have positive plays each and every play. That’s all.”
Jackson’s interception on the Ravens’ first possession was easily avoidable. He could’ve taken his chances on the third-and-6 play with a quick strike to running back Latavius Murray, who’d motioned out of the backfield and sprinted into the right flat against Bush.
He could’ve thrown over the middle to Brown, who was running a shallow crossing route and had a positioning and speed advantage over safety Terrell Edmunds.
Or he could’ve flung the ball out of bounds, knowing that kicker Justin Tucker would almost certainly give the Ravens a 3-0 lead with a short field-goal attempt.
Instead, Jackson took a bad situation and doubled down on the risk. The Ravens’ alignment up front was questionable from the start; their five offensive linemen seemed to slide their protection at the snap to the left, which meant Jackson was shielded from a late-arriving cornerback blitz but not from Watt, who from the right side of the line had an unblocked path.
Jackson backpedaled and backpedaled, waiting for Andrews to get open against the “Cover 0″ look. Jackson said he’d wanted to throw over the head of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who was lurking near the goal line, perhaps looking to undercut any throws to Andrews.
But Jackson had to throw off his back foot at the Ravens’ 25-yard line, almost 11 yards back from the line of scrimmage, and the pass never got close to Andrews’ catch radius. Fitzpatrick came down with the interception, Jackson’s fifth in the past two games.
The 2-point conversion
Jackson called the Ravens’ failed 2-point-conversion attempt — a play-action look for Andrews, who’d released into the right flat — a “perfect play.”
Maybe the only problem? The play’s design meant Watt would be left unblocked. And he had experience with Jackson in close quarters.
“The play I replayed in my head all week was Lamar pump-faking me last year in Baltimore and beating me for a 14-, 15-yard scramble,” Watt told NBC Sports after the game. “So in this scenario, I just want [to] stay on my feet and get my outside arm up to try to influence him, change his angle.”
Had the Ravens flipped the play around, Watt (16 sacks in 10 games) likely would’ve been occupied by the run fake, and outside linebacker Alex Highsmith (three sacks in 11 games) would’ve been left unblocked. Jackson also might’ve had to throw as he rolled to his left, a less comfortable proposition than throwing from the right side. But Watt’s speed, size and strategy were enough to disrupt Jackson, knocking off his timing with Andrews.
“He’s way taller than me, way wider,” Jackson said. “I just had to make something happen. That’s it.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
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Line: Browns by 2